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Baker's Ann Cullen:
Teaching Can Make You a Better Librarian

"Students are our libraries' future," Ann Cullen says. "In library school, they need to be exposed to those working in the field as well as to the more theoretical outlook offered by the full-time professors in the program."

When she came to Harvard in August 2002, Cullen, business information librarian at the Baker Library of the Harvard Business School, already had a commitment to teach at the Pratt Institute in New York City as part of its Master's of Library Science Program. "It was a pretty crazy schedule getting used to my new job here at Harvard while having to travel down to New York to teach my class every other week," Cullen says. Yet she found teaching as an adjunct in an MLS program to be quite a learning experience.

Teaching, Cullen says, is a constant opportunity to test out ideas you have about how to approach a topic. It provides the opportunity to analyze what one knows and needs to know, while figuring out how to present this within the confines of the designated course structure. As her course progresses, she adapts her pre-planned notions to the needs of the group and changes the program when a concept proves more complicated (or easier) for them to digest than anticipated. In addition, she says, "Through checking homework and project papers, you get a very individualized assessment of what each student is personally intrigued by and what concepts they're picking up on. So yes, the students are learning a lot—but so are you."

Of course, Cullen readily concedes that being an adjunct can be exhausting, given the fact that doing adequate course preparation can eat up any free time you may have. But in the end, she says, all that preparation definitely pays off—not only for your students, but for your own development as well. "One of the reasons extensive class preparation is often necessary is that teaching library courses frequently requires staying on the cutting edge," she notes. "For example, when I've taught classes on business research on the Internet, I openly acknowledged to my students that there is no way I could ever know every relevant new resource available on the Web. In fact, part of my presentation on this topic is to emphatically state that with the constant changes taking place on the Internet it's important to accept that you can't know it all, and that's why teamwork and networking with your colleagues are so important. But despite this, I still came to that classroom as prepared as possible! So certainly one challenge of teaching in an MLS program always has to be to update your syllabus and teaching notes, even if you're teaching a class you've done before."

Adjuncts provide students with valuable opportunities for exposure to real-world examples of what they are studying. "This can certainly be attained by internships and fieldwork, but adjuncts offer a tremendous amount as well," Cullen says. "I have fond recollections of my business reference course many years ago and the professor bringing in her own tales of research projects she was currently confronting at the investment bank library where she worked." And in Cullen's classes this is also a key component that the students have valued tremendously. "To say how certain search techniques I'm illustrating in class were used to respond to a real live request for information that the requester assumed couldn't be found makes the students pay attention, listen, and appreciate the value of the training they're getting," she says.

Cullen recently attended the ALISE (Association for Library and Information Science Education) conference, where the point of adequately meshing theory and practice in library education was raised over and over again. In fact, the primary focus of the conference, as encapsulated in the article "Educators Want to Connect Research with Practice" in the March 2003 issue of American Libraries, was on "connecting library and information science education with the practice of librarianship." "In a profession that appears to be changing with every blink of the eye, adjunct professors in library schools are crucial to keeping future librarians on the pulse of what demands they'll be facing once they've received their degrees," says Cullen. "I've found it tremendously fulfilling to be part of this molding and formative process."

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Last modified on Wednesday, July 30, 2003.